Theater Review: An Enjoyable If Unmemorable Trip Down the “Big River”

The impressive cast and lovely, atmospheric design of the Lyric Stage production cannot overcome the flaws of Big River, but they make the trip a scenic, often amusing, and enjoyable theatrical journey.

Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Music and Lyrics by Roger Miller. Book by William Hauptman. Adapted from the novel by Mark Twain. Directed by Spiro Veloudos. Music Direction by Jonathan Goldberg. Choreography by Rachel Bertone. Presented by the Lyric Stage Company, Clarendon Street, Boston, MA, through October 8, 2011.

By Alyssa Hall

Jordan Ahnquist (Huck) and De’Lon Grant (Jim) sing River in the Rain in the Lyric Stage production of BIG RIVER. Photo: Mark S. Howard.

The original 1985 production of Big River, a musical adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, may have won seven Tony Awards including Best Musical, but the other nominees that year were Grind, Leader of the Pack, and Quilters. Perhaps that explains why its mediocre book, lyrics, and score were forgiven. Truth is, the musical lacks the emotional impact of other Best Musical winners. It tends to wallow too much in the shallow end, emphasizing comic shenanigans over substance.

The simplistic lyrics and pleasant enough bluegrass and country score by Roger Miller evoke the Southern setting and complement the plain-speaking, folksy dialect of Huck Finn’s world, but they dart as quickly out of your mind as the raft rolls down the flooded Mississippi (excepting, perhaps, the gospel-like and haunting slave number “The Crossing” and the atmospheric duets “Muddy Water” and “River in the Rain”).

The lengthy (almost two and a half hour) show drags when it meanders away from Huck and Jim’s friendship, the emotional heart of the story, and Jim’s escape from slavery, the driving motivation for the plot. Whenever the plot sidetracks purely for comedic purposes, to focus on minor characters like Tom Sawyer or the con men The Duke and The King, the journey stalls. Cutting extraneous scenes from the novel, such as the Nonesuch con, which does not develop Huck or Jim as characters or present any opposition to Jim’s escape, would have strengthened the musical’s focus.

Fortunately, the highly competent cast and the impressive design team of the Lyric Stage production make the most of the best aspects of the musical.

Jordan Ahnquist plays up Huck’s youth, exuberance, rebelliousness, and stubborn, teenage reluctance to admit he is wrong (“well, that sounded pretty reasonable” Huck admits sullenly at one point). This interpretation allows Huck to remain sympathetic even when he neglects his friendship with Jim because it is clear that age and naivety, not deficient moral character, are behind his cruelty. Ahnquist brings sharp comic timing to the role, and his agreeable voice works especially well in duets, though it is sometimes difficult to hear him in large group numbers.

The Lyric Stage cast of BIG RIVER in action. Photo: Mark S. Howard

As Jim, the talented De’Lon Grant adeptly conveys both the “considerable trouble and considerable joy” of the duo’s journey. Grant’s Jim intimates an underlying sorrow, resolve, and quiet dignity even as he expresses intense delight at his escape and budding friendship with Huck.

This deep, dark layer under the surface serves as a potent reality check for both Huck and the musical, reminding us that though Huck presents this journey as a fun adventure, the anguish of slavery (the horrible separation of families, the constant terrible fear of recapture, and the knowledge that even friends can be “worlds apart” when they don’t share the same racial background) remains constant. Thus Grant’s impressive, anguished monologue in which he reveals the condition of Jim’s daughter is so powerful that it feels almost out of place in a show that doesn’t offer many opportunities for a performer to register pain.

Although both actors are strong alone, the scenes with Ahnquist and Grant together are the show’s highlights. The relaxed ease in their interactions conveys a sense of genuine caring and unforced comradery between the characters. Their voices blend well and powerfully, making duets like “Muddy Water” and “River in the Rain” resonate, especially because of the simple staging and thematic power of the duet songs (their love for the river and their growing friendship).

The rest of the large cast makes the most of the minor character roles. Paul D. Farwell as Pap Finn flips instantly and unsettlingly from the amusing (in a drunken, Elvis-like rendition of the rant “Guv’ment”) to the dangerously menacing. Phil Taylor’s guileless, energetic, very naïve portrayal of Tom Sawyer serves as an amusingly ironic example of how much Huck, by comparison, has matured by the end of the show. Peter A. Carey’s The Duke milks exaggerated pauses and inflection changes to provide laughs with his woefully horrible misinterpretations of Shakespeare. Erica Spyres, playing Huck’s love interest Mary Jane Wilkes, has a lovely voice, although her grief for her deceased father seems a bit shallow and unconvincing.

Projections bring the Mississippi River to life in BIG RIVER. Photo: Mark S. Howard.

The cast may be strong, but the design team really steals the show, making the river trip memorably scenic. Janie E. Howland creates a naturalistic yet flexible set that’s as fluid as the river itself. Wooden planks cover the entire stage floor and back wall of the theater—abstract trees are arranged on the sides. The set allows the actors to quickly change between scenes: for example, lifting a few planks detaches the downstage area, making it into a raft.

The set also serves as a canvas for the effective projection designs of Seághan McKay, which often sprawl across the entire back wall of the theater and the two scrims in the upper corners of the sides. Projections are either old-looking sketches and maps (such as a period map of the Mississippi or a drawing of a cave) or videos of a vast river that shifts direction, realistically matching the rowing actions of the actors.

The sketches enhance the storybook feel of the show: the large projections of the moving river reinforce the presence of the Mississippi River as a mythic power on whose primal shoulders Huck’s story floats.

The impressive cast and lovely, atmospheric design of the Lyric Stage production cannot overcome the flaws of Big River, but they make the trip a scenic, often amusing, and enjoyable theatrical journey.

To enhance an appreciation of the show’s recreation of the novel’s time and setting, as well as to gain a better understanding of the moral quandary Huck faces when deciding whether to help or turn in Jim, patrons with an extra half an hour before the show should stop by the Torn in Two: 150th Anniversary of the Civil War . The latter is a free exhibit at the Boston Public Library near the theater, mentioned in show’s program. The small exhibit will be especially interesting to people who enjoy old maps, political cartoons, and other printed materials from Civil War times.

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